Newtown Literary Contributor: Sherese Francis

Writer Sherese Francis’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary, and was previously featured in Issue #6.  For more of Sherese’s work, check out Futuristically Ancient; you can also keep up with her work with J. Expressions. She interviews herself below:

So we’ve reached 2017. 2016 was quite a year, and I heard you came up with your own motto for the new year!
Yes, I did! And yes, 2016 was a year of hardships, opportunities, and figuring out what I want for myself. My first half of the year was mostly centered on building up towards the first Queens book festival, along with working on No Longer Empty‘s Jameco Exchange Exhibition. But when it was done, I realized how burned out I was. So the months after August leading up to the New Year, I needed to do a reevaluation and some self-reflection. And I ended up with the motto: “Understanding Your Worth”.

Oh, I like that motto: “Understanding Your Worth”! What does it mean for you?
Well, for a long time I let fear rule me. I had a fear of failure and social anxiety that prevented me from going after certain things. Then, a couple of years after college, I decided to take a chance on opportunities presented to me, such as doing the Queens Book Festival. I had to understand that I was worthy enough to do something like that, and it has been a great opportunity that has allowed me to connect with various people. But in doing a project of that magnitude, I lost balance and would push projects that I was personally passionate about to the side. Working with No Longer Empty and starting J. Expressions pop-up bookshop helped me to see that. I learned that I can’t say yes to everything out of fear that another opportunity that great wouldn’t come along, especially at the expense of something important to me; sometimes I have to say no or else I will be drained of my spirit, my energy, my purpose, myself.

Wonderful! So how are you executing that motto in the New Year, and finding that balance again?
Well, I rededicated myself to my blog, Futuristically Ancient. I committed myself to do at least one post a week. I recently debuted my first blog video, too, featuring a couple of local visual artists talking about their work. Additionally, I started a new blog series called StoryCraft, where I showcase and mention my writing projects in progress. Speaking of writing, I rededicated myself to my writing. Again, thanks to No Longer Empty, I had a chance to showcase and read an excerpt from the fantasy novel I am writing now at an another exhibition they did in Jamaica. Doing that pushed me to go full force on writing it again. I tried doing so before I left for Barbados as part of the NaNoWriMo and during my trip, but that didn’t quite work out.

Oh, you went to Barbados! How was that?
Not what I expected. My mother became ill only a couple of days in, and so a week and a half was spent taking care of her. Plus adjusting to the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes, and the small space we were staying in added to the difficulty. But don’t get me wrong, Barbados is a beautiful place, and when my mother felt better, we did get to see my family (and I have a lot I didn’t know about), we were able to see some sights and go to a few events in honor of their independence anniversary, and I was able to see Barbados beyond the “touristy” part of it. New experiences like that can be the fertilizer for new creative inspiration.

Wow, that sounds like a lot. Speaking of creative inspiration, what was one that you had?
I did receive a lot of inspiration. Some for my novel and some for poetry as well. For example, both my mother and I had a beach day, and since neither of us can swim, we only went in up to our waist. The symbolism of that and the water made me think of motherhood, wombs, feminine power, ancestry, and lineage. A poem might result from that.

Great! You have been mentioning your novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
Of course! It’s called The E, and it is a science-fiction/fantasy story set in Jamaica, Queens, and inspired by the Underground Railroad and subway culture. It follows a young woman named S.W. Isibe as she learns that she is part of a team of underground agents with magical powers, two of whom are inspired by Harriet Tubman and William Still. They travel and mostly live in a quantum time-traveling, shapeshifting subway E train. S.W. is pulled into a world beyond her current imagination, and as she explores this new world, she is also exploring herself and her own inner strength.

That sounds interesting! I look forward to getting a copy. What has the process been like? And do you know when you will be done with it?
It has been a process that has tested my confidence as a writer. I have been mostly a poet as a writer, and so delving into fiction is like stepping into a new territory where I am not completely fluent with the language yet and learning as I go along. But I have learned to use my strengths as a poet and as a researcher to help me flesh out both my short stories and my longer novel. Fiction is filled with poetic language and with the concept of my book, learning historical facts, but the task for me has been developing three-dimensional characters and a compelling plot, which is good mental exercise. Hopefully, within a few months I will finish the manuscript for the novel, but definitely before the end of the year. Then I will start sending it out.

I hear that! People sometimes forget that just because someone is a writer doesn’t mean that they can easily write every genre. Now tell me about J. Expressions.
It was an idea I came up with after finding out Queens did not have many bookstores, outside of the Astoria Bookshop and a few niche ones, like Libreria Barco De Papel and Topos Bookstore. Living in Jamaica, Queens, I am far from Astoria, and the Barnes and Noble closed in Forest Hills, so we don’t really have much access here. Inspired by other initiatives like Queens Bookshop, I wanted to create a project centered around the southeast Queens community. The project showcases authors and other literary artists from the southeast Queens area.

How has the project been going so far since you started? Where can we find out more about it?
It is building slowly. I have tabled since July when I started at Jamaica Market Harvest Festival and at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre’s Kwanzaa celebration. I am applying for grants so I can do a series of literary events in the Jamaica area this year. Those interested in collaborating or helping to build the project can visit my Instagram, @jexpressionsbookshop and my website, jexpressionsbookshop.tumblr.com.

Are you working on any other projects?
Besides the five million other things I am working on, I decided to start a Wattspad and I’m currently writing a short story series, A Stitch in Time, which you can read here. I am still writing poetry, and writing and revising a few manuscript ideas. I am also becoming more interested in ways to combine writing and visual arts. For example, last year I started an Instagram series, #InYourQ where I took pictures of things I saw in Queens and then would use the pictures as writing prompts. The other day, I decided to decorate a binder that I had with words cut out from a magazine. I call it a binder full of magic. Maybe I will do it as a larger project — who knows! Also, I had a couple of artists show interest in collaborating by creating work inspired by my writing, so hopefully something is there!

Sounds exciting! What’s coming up next for you?
Writing. Writing. Writing. I have a reading coming in March at QCA. Opportunities are finding me and I’m just trying to breathe and again find balance through it all.

So what else keeps you centered besides writing?
I love music and dance. I am such an old soul. My favorite genres of music to listen to are classic soul music and funk music. When I hear voices like Chaka Khan, Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Shuggie Otis, Isley Brothers, and Mother’s Finest, it lifts my spirits. I don’t hear that in a lot of today’s mainstream music. And I dance, usually by myself, as a way to get out of my head. As a writer, I tend to think a lot and that can be draining. Dance grounds me and reenergizes me. I’ve been thinking of joining dance classes. We’ll see.

With the current political and social climate, what advice do you have for writers, artists, and others who are distressed by it all? 
I heard a poet the other day say that we must speak our truth because truth is poetry. And I believe going forward, we need to continually remind ourselves of that — Speak our truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be for others. Be as you as you can be and don’t let anyone tell you who that “you” is. We have someone who is taking (and I do meaning taking) the presidential office and he arrogantly announces himself as our savior, when he is more like a charlatan, a snake oil salesman. He pretends to be something he is not, so one of the best things we can do is be honest about who we are. I’ve been learning to trust more and more my inner voice and how to let it guide me. I recently read my horoscope from Chani Nicholas and the horoscope matched my motto for this year, and I was pleasantly surprised that I knew what I needed. We need to be honest about ourselves and what we need.

Thank you so much for the encouraging words! Anything else you would like to share?
Thank you, Newtown Literary, for including my poetry in your journal and giving Queens writers another opportunity to showcase our work and our borough.

Thanks for the interview!
No, thank you!

Thanks, Sherese!

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Newtown Literary Contributor: Allison Escoto

Writer Allison Escoto’s piece was featured in Issue #8 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can check out more of her writing at After So Long Girl.

 

What is your relationship to Queens?
In September of 2001, I moved from Manhattan to Astoria and spent the ensuing six years living in both Astoria and Jackson Heights. I worked for Queens Library as a librarian in Jamaica for three years before moving out east to Suffolk County. In the fall of 2014, I found myself backmeandgreta in Astoria and back working for Queens Library in Corona. Whenever I hear anything bad about Queens or anyone dissing the borough as a drive through, it sticks in my craw. I think Queens is the best borough in NYC, hands down. There is no other place like it.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
I have so many! But one of my favorite memories is pretty recent. I was walking to work one morning and made the seemingly unpopular decision to not have earbuds in. Doing this in any given neighborhood in Queens is a veritable gold mine for a writer; there is so much to hear. What was really remarkable and very “Queens” was that I started counting the different languages I heard and I counted six! Six unique languages in a four mile radius… you just can’t get that anywhere else.

How would you describe the writing you do?
When I first started really writing, I was at that stage in life when you are falling in love with everyone and everything that crosses your path, you know? Everything that happened felt like it merited some kind of memorial. Poetry was the only way I could even begin to tackle all that. So I write about love a lot. I’ve never found it difficult to unearth the machinations in the everyday, mundane events of life so I write about those a lot, too. My first love is poetry and it is usually what I default to. There have been so many times when I sit down to write something completely different and it turns into a poem. It’s such a challenge to say a lot with a few words and I try to pose that challenge to myself each time I sit down to write. I’m also really comfortable writing personal essays and blogs. I’m a shy person in a big city and for many years, blogging was a way for me to connect with people.

How did you come to writing?
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was little and that’s how I really learned to communicate with the world. I grew up in the deep south and as the one of two brown kids in my school I was always pretty quiet and kept to myself. But I found kinship in books and poetry. I started writing poetry in grade school and kept up with it throughout high school. By the time I got to undergrad and had to choose a major, I knew there was nothing else I could see myself happy doing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a diary and when online blogging became a thing, I took to it immediately.

What inspires you?
My job. I work with the general public. Do I need to elaborate on what about that would inspire a writer? Just ask anyone who has ever had to work with the public. I’m also inspired by other writers. So many times, after I finish a good book or watch a really well written show or attend a poetry reading, I go home and I write.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Being a writer in Queens, as I’m learning all the time, means you have a built in community. I was so excited to learn about Newtown Literary Journal, the classes that happen at the Astoria Bookshop, the local writers who bring other writers together. I always kind of feel that Queens is the scrappy kid sister of the boroughs and when I meet other creative people from here, I feel an instant kinship. Plus, there is always a possibility for inspiration just by walking through any given neighborhood. There are so many stories here.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Ever since I became a librarian 13 long years ago, all I hear from coworkers, library patrons, and pretty much everyone else has said, “You could write a book about your job.” So that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing a satirical novel about a library.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“Who is your favorite poet?”

I’m constantly reading new poetry (or new to me, anyway) and so the answer changes often. It seems unfair to narrow something like this down but the poetry that resonates through my brain and my heart, no matter how many times I read it is the work of Frank O’Hara. I first read him when I was in my early 20s and now that I’m 40, it still means something to me. He’s the one constant.

Newtown Literary Contributor: Sherese Francis

Writer Sherese Francis’s poems “Thinker-Tinker” and “Through the Eyes of a Prawn” were featured in Issue #6 of Newtown Literary.  We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. For more of Sherese’s work, check out Futuristically Ancient; you can also keep up with her work on the Queens Book Festival.

What is your relationship to Queens?
I have lived in Jamaica, Queens, for most of my life, from about the age of two (I was born in Brooklyn). I live in the general vicinity of the end of the E and F subway lines in Queens, which is like venturing to outer space for some people.

How would you describe the writing you do?
For most of my writing life, my main focus was writing poetry, but I also liked writing essays, and short stories occasionally. When I started college, I started gaining interest in blog writing. I try to challenge myself and my writing, so I don’t really have an obvious category for my writing; however, my interests tend to revolve around mytho-spiritual writing, taboo writing, and object writing.

Some of my interests include mythology, esoteric works, spiritual fiction, and other similar areas of study, so I incorporate much of that into my work. I like writing about subjects that have been forgotten, marginalized, or repressed because I like questioning the world in which we live and accepted histories. I believe there are greater truths that illuminate and change our world if we questioned the status quo more.  I think of Bukowski’s work “I Met a Genius” and challenging common ideas about the world in which we live.

Additionally, one of my favorite writing exercises is ekphrasis writing and I extended it to the observation of the environment and finding multiple meanings through your own presence. Our world is much bigger than we see, but we have to be willing to explore that and pay attention to things we miss on daily basis.

My two poems in the journal kind of reflect those ideas, whether it is “Thinker-Tinker”, which references Nikola Tesla and Antonio Meucci, and is about how we miss the important figures in our lives who change our world because certain accepted histories silence them, or “Through the Eyes of a Prawn”, which I wrote after looking at a award-winning picture of a prawn’s eye.

How did you come to writing?
I started writing officially when I was in the fifth grade. Before then I know I was making up little ditties and stuff like that, but in the fifth grade is where I remember an assignment where we had to create our own books, and that’s when I started writing poetry and stories. Two of my favorite early poems were “Ms. Blues”, which I wrote after seeing a doll in an ad that looked like a blues singer, and “Menarche and the Girl”, about my struggles with and pains of menstruation.

During my teenage years, I wrote here and there personally (most of my writing was dedicated to writing essays for school, for which I did a good job and I liked). I didn’t take writing seriously as a possible career option until college, when I did a poetry collection for a senior class, and now I am here.

What inspires you?
Anything and everything! These past few years I have been learning to be more open and present to the world around me and use whatever I soak in to create. It could be a random object or place on the street and it could inspire something. It could be graffiti on the walls or music lyrics or words from another writer or TV shows or museums exhibits or my own personal life — this list could go on forever!

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
I have written before about how Queens is a place of hidden treasure; it’s not like the other boroughs where its has a kind of obvious consolidated history or center that is handed to you on a golden platter for you to enjoy. You have to explore and find out what you like about it. Queens’s trademark is its diversity, and that diversity is spread throughout its various decentralized communities, so there’s something new to discover and learn in Queens that can be absorbed into my writing.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Currently I am working on a urban-ish fantasy novel set in Queens. It’s called The E and it’s about an underground team with supernatural powers who are fighting the tyrannical powers above ground, and their headquarters are located in a secret underground location inside a shapeshifting, time and space traveling, living E train. The main character is S.W. Isibe, and the book focuses on her as she discovers her powers and herself. The novel takes influences from the Underground Railroad (two of the other main characters are based on important figures who were part of it) as well as local Jamaica, Queens, history. Much of the story will utilize Queens locations or landmarks as part of the fantastical world and play on the idea that Queens and the world are more that what you can physically see.

Besides that I recently wrote my first children’s story, which I submitted to a contest (and here’s hoping that they like it)! I am also working on a poetry collection called “And the Water Breaks”, which I call a poetic automythology. In addition to that I am the literary director of the upcoming Queens Book Festival in 2016, and I am trying to make time for my blog, Futuristically Ancient, which I have been regretfully neglecting. So, as you can see I have a lot on my plate. 🙂

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
Well one thing I didn’t elaborate on was my blog. It’s called Futurstically Ancient and my title is that I am A Future Ancient! My blog was started in my junior year of college when I took a blogging course. It centers on exploring arts and culture of the African diaspora through an afrofuturist lens. Afrofuturism is a newly recognized movement and critical lens that utilizes tropes of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, mythology, magic(k), magic realism, and surrealism to explore and create alternative futures for people of the diaspora.

The reason why I named my blog Futuristcally Ancient is because I feel speculative fiction is something that we have always created whether it was mythology, folklore, legends, etc., and we are just continually reexamining and recreating the past and those stories in new ways, like in science fiction and fantasy. Also, one day I will be ancient history and future people may look back and see what I did. So we are not just future or past, but both continually dialoging in the present.

Thank you again for the interview! I appreciate it!



Thanks, Sherese!

Readers, mark your calendars:

  • Delve deep into your personal writing as Heightening Stories presents the Creative Nonfiction/Autobiographical Fiction workshop. Enrollment is open until November 4.
  • Work on your development and revision skills! Heightening Stories presents the Community Writing Exercise Workshop. Enrollment is open until November 10.
  • Boundless Tales is accepting submissions for its current reading series! Submissions are considered on a rolling basis; the next reading will be November 12.